Sunday, November 8, 2015

Palak Paneer

Ingredients
Palak/Spinach - 1 large bunch fresh (not baby spinach), or 1 bag thawed frozen chopped spinach
Paneer - I make it myself (instructions below), or 8-16oz of frozen cubes.  Also called queso fresca.
                 1 gallon of milk, preferrably raw milk
                 2-3 tsp of citric acid or a lemon
Onions - 2 large
Tomatoes - 1 jar or can, or 2 large fresh
Oil/Ghee/Clarified Butter - 3-5 Tbsp
Garlic - 2-3 cloves
Ginger - 1-2 inch piece
Chili powder - 1 tsp
Curry powder  - 1 Tbsp
Garam Masala - 1 Tbsp
(optional - another tsp of coriander powder,
         - a couple Tbsp of heavy cream)
need pots, pans, food processor, and clean cheesecloth, colander, an empty sink, and a kloodged pressing set up.
Typically served with rice and maybe naan or parathas

Process
1) Make the paneer, many hours ahead of time.  Put the milk in a large pot and bring to a near boil.  It will take awhile but you need to pay attention when it gets close because in most pots it can boil over easily and make a mess, and you'll need to turn the heat down when it gets close.  If it does boil it will still be fine, (if it doesn't make a mess), but the texture will degrade the longer it boils.  Dissolve the 2-3tsbp of citric acid in about a 1/4 cup of cold water, you just need enough that it dissolves.  When the milk is boiling well add the citric acid (or alternately squeeze all the lemon juice out of both halves of a fresh lemon of large lime.  Stir a bit, the milk should fairly quickly clump up into milk-solids on top (the curds), leaving behind a bunch of yellow-greenish (boiling) liquid (the whey).  If the liquid is still fairly milky in color/texture, you may need to curdle it a little more with a little more lemon juice/lime juice/citric acid.  A little vinegar will work too.  Turn off heat and let it cool 10 min.  Put the cheesecloth over the colander and both in the empty sink.  Pour the pot into the cheesecloth (curds and whey).  The whey should flow through the cloth, out the colander and into the sink, leaving only the curds.  Press the cheesecloth by hand to get more whey out, it will be hot.  Gather the corners of the cheesecloth, and tie them off, or use a rubberband, or sandwich bag tie, or something to close it.  Now you need several hours of long slow press to get more of the whey out.  I put a flat-bottomed metal strainer over the pot I just used, put the paneer-curds in the cheesecloth on it, put a skillet over it, and then a serious weight (say my 5lb jar of flour or sugar or something).  The idea is to use the weight to slowly press the whey out of the curds, and give it a place to run-off to without doing any damage or re-absorbing.  It takes a couple hours, say 3-5 optimally.  If you have a real cheese press, that should work too.  Or other similar kloodges.  Paneer is the easiest cheese to make at home.  The Mexican cheese queso fresco, and the Slavic cheese tvorog are basically the same thing in other cultures.  If you use milk that is a little soured, the same process yields the Indian chhena (don't press it quite as long), or the Slavic quark,
2) about an hour before the dish is done - if the spinach is frozen thaw it in the microwave for 6 min, if fresh, chop roughly and steam in a little bit of water until soft.  You can do this in the microwave or in a pot.
3) Chop garlic and ginger in food processor, remove (into a little bowl, with a good spatula) and set aside
4) Finely chop onions in the food processor (you'll probably need to cut them into chunks first).
5) Heat oil in heavy pan over medium-high heat.
6) And finely chopped onions and after 5 minutes add the garlic and ginger.  Fry a bit more.
7) Meanwhile, puree the tomatoes in the food processor
8) Add the curry powder, chili powder, (and optionally the coriander).  Fry 2 minutes.
9) Add pureed tomatoes and fry a while
10) Puree the spinach in the food processor
11) Add the pureed spinach and fry for 2-4 minuted
12) Add the garam masala
13) Unwrap the paneer, chop it into 3/4inch cubes, add to the frying mix and stir in softly (it breaks easily)
14) Turn heat down to low and cook for 20 minutes (Start the rice in the rice cooker nowish, don't forget to salt the rice)
15) Lace the Palak Paneer with a couple of tbsp of cream
16) Serve with rice and naan or parathas

Commentary:  This is a family favorite, taught to us by Hema Coleman-Ganupatti.  It's vegetarian, and stretches well.  Making your own paneer is totally worth it.    If you like making your own paneer at home and get the hang of it, you could advance to trying mozzerella, queso Oaxaca, or sana, each of which are only a little harder.




Friday, July 10, 2015

Khlodnik (A cold summer soup in the Slavic style)

Ingredients

1/2 lb of hardy greens (fresh beet greens are traditional, but I'll bet chard or kale, etc would work too)
3 cups  Chicken stock, chicken broth, or veggie stock
1.5 cups of Black Bread Kvass (or ginger ale, or Zima)
1/2 cup of sour cream
2 Tbsp  fresh snipped dill,  (or 1 teaspoon) of the dried stuff
1 Tbsp of chopped chives
2 large radishes, or 3 small ones, sliced not diced
1 dill pickle, diced
1 small cucumber, diced
1 small beet (cooked, peeled, diced)
2 teaspoons of sugar
optional (1/2lb of meat, cubed, - veal, beef stew meat, ham, diced bologna, etc)
salt, pepper, to taste
ice cubes
2 hard boiled eggs chopped

Directions
Cook beet greens in boiling salted water for 25 min. (Kale and Chard will wilt much faster like 5-8 min.)  Drain, squeeze out excess liquid, chop. (You can even use the stems, as long as you chop them).  Meanwhile cook beet until tenderish maybe 15 min, Cook meat if you are using it.
In a large bowl combine kvass or substitute, stock, and sour cream and whisk until sour cream is well incorporated.  Add, radishes, cucumber, pickle, dill, chives, and when ready beet, greens, and if using, cooked cubed meat.  Add sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir.  Cover and chill.  Ideally at least 4 hours.  It does well overnight or next day too.

To serve, put an ice cube or 2 on the bottom of each bowl, fill with chilled soup, then top liberally with chopped boiled eggs.

Yields 6 to 8 servings

Comments
It's a lovely cold summer soup, refreshing and designed for once the cucumbers and radishes are ready for harvest. Pair it with bread, sandwiches or maybe homemade bread.  Goes well with tea, lemonade, ginger ale, cold vodka, etc.  Polish style Khlodnik typically has more beets (say 3 even 4 or 5) and fewer other veggies (and maybe even a tablespoon of tomato paste).  Poles often float halved or quartered boiled eggs on the top, instead of chopping and sprinkling.  Russian style, emphasizes other veggies and has only 1 or 0 beets.  If you make it with no beets, and maybe add some boiled potato, mustard, and sour it a bit, it starts shading toward another Russian soup called okroshka.  Traditional okroshka adds a teaspoon of mustard, horseradish to taste, and is a bit sourer than khlodnik (add some kefir, or buttermilk, or lemon juice, or vinegar, or substitute all the stock for kvass). Svekol'nik is another Russian cold summer soup in the vicinity here, but I'm inclined to believe that khlodnik, okroshka, and svekol'nik are all distinct.  Belarussian style, adds garlic, uses no beets, adds dairy and nowadays often uses shrimp instead of other meat, maybe some fennel. Some recipes will use yoghurt or kefir or buttermilk to make it creamier, and maybe a little lemon juice or vinegar (not much) if your kvass doesn't come out sour enough.  Ukrainians call it kholodnik, and I've found recipes for it that are similar to the Russian version.  But, I also found a reference to Ukrainian Jews over a century ago making kholodnik with mushrooms and blackberries to sweeten it (and presumably no meat so as not to mix meat and dairy), and eating it for breakfast.  Further south, and in the Caucuses it starts blending into the Ottoman soup cacik.  This dish works lovely vegetarian, but probably won't work right without some kind of dairy to set off the dill and kvass.  Kvass is the hard part, and the recipe for it is below, but you can substitute other things and still get a wonderful soup.  You want something vaguely carbonated, that will be light when chilled, and add a little flavor, maybe some acidity.  Ginger ale worked.  I'll bet a Zima, or a shandy, or alcoholic lemonade would too.  Beer is less traditional than kvass, but sometimes used in Okroshka.  If there is a little alcohol in the final soup, it's OK, but there shouldn't be much.  If you do use real black bread kvass it will add a richness, and yet still also be light and refreshing, and the hint of mint will pair with the cucumber well.  Don't neglect the pickle, the contrast of the fresh cucumber and the pickle is also great.  Polish style will come out pink, Russian style is ideally be a mix of white and green, with maybe some pink.

Black Bread Kvass
1.5 lb or Staled Black Bread - cubed
1.5 Tbsp of Mint
1 lemon, cut into chunks
10 cups boiling water
1/2 cup of sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 package active dry yeast
8 grains of white rice (don't ask me why)

Place bread cubes on baking sheet and back at 325 for 20 min, to dry out.  Transfer to large crock (crock pots work fine, as do stoneware crocks if they are big enough and can be sealed).  Sprinkle mint, add cut up lemon.  Add 10 cups of boiling water, cover tightly and let sit for 5 to 6 hours.
Strain liquid through cheesecloth, pressing down on the back of the bread with a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible, but without pressing the sediment through the cloth.  To strained liquid add yeast, cream of tartar and sugar.  Stir will. Cover.  Let stand for 8+ hours.  You can compost the bread, lemon,& mint.  Next day, strain it again through the cheese cloth, put it into a 1 quart bottle.  (A 2 liter bottle works fine too).  Add 8 grains of rice, seal.  let stand 8 more hours. Strain once more through cheesecloth into fresh bottle.  Refrigerate until use.  Yields 1 quart.

Comments
The result is somewhere between a beer and a Zima, but the alcohol level is pretty low, in line with a non-alcoholic or small beer, with a flavor that doesn't really have good analogs to my American/Western European palate.  You can drink it chilled, much as you would a beer or Zima, or you can add it to soups and sauces.  The same basic strategy works with almost any kind of staled bread, so it's a great way to use bread that is just beginning to go bad, but not yet moulded. Kvass served the role in Eastern Europe that bread pudding and French Toast served in Western Europe, productively using up bread that was about to go bad. Wheat, rye, and barley breads all work well. Whiter bread will yield less flavor and color, and taste closer to Zima.  Adding a little lemon juice, and maybe a little post-fermentation sugar, is nice if you're gonna drink it rather than use it in soups and sauces.  Berry, raisin, and other flavorings get used sometimes at the very end too.

If you add honey and the spit of two or more people of rival factions making tentative peace at the fermenting step, the result is sacred to the Norse god Kvasir, and having the factions drink the kvass that results a few days later is a classic way to cement successful peace talks, in the Norse and Slavic traditions.  If you make a triple batch in 3 separate crocks, (called  Boðn, Són and Óðrerir), mix them, add mead at the end, and maybe a drop of the blood of a scholar or poet, the result is a symbol of skáldskapar mjaðar and used in ritual work to gain knowledge, wisdom or poetic inspiration. Hmm, I seem to be drifting ... More recently, kvass is  seen as a competitor to cola in Eastern Europe, and one that symbolizes valuing Eastern tradition over Western colonization.  The big brand is called Nikola, (a name which also sounds like Not-Cola) and markets its drink as promoting "Anti Cola-nization."  Get it?


References:
My recipes here are heavily based on Darra Goldstein's 1983 book "A la Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality" which is my favorite Russian cookbook, but I've tinkered some on my own, and consulted the web for a bunch of Polish variations.  And, you know, the Prose Edda ...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Philosophical Percolations

So our new blog Philosophical Percolations is now up and live, at http://www.philpercs.com. I am one of 17 philosophers who has pledged to post almost every week there.  Our goals are to blog "All the philosophy that's not fit to print" and to "keep philosophy weird."  This means that all my philosophical stuff (which face it, is pretty much everything except recipes) will now be appearing over at that blog.  My first post over there is The Three Gates of Speech, and is about a fake Rumi quote.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Is Bruce Jenner a Lesbian, and Am I?

So I haven't seen the Bruce Jenner interview yet, but trans folks are certainly talking plenty about it. Some opinionated overview, in case you haven't been following the case. Yes Jenner is trans and has been transitioning for about the last year and a half, (and thus is a little “ahead” of me). Bruce has not provided the world with a female name yet, and said to use male pronouns for the interview. Whether we are intended to use them after the interview is less clear, but I will try to continue using male pronouns until I'm convinced that that's not the most respectful way to talk about Jenner (and I sympathize a lot with the tensions here personally). Despite this Jenner says "for all intents and purposes I am a woman."  The media as a whole has handled the whole damn thing pretty shamefully, and quite unlike the cases of Lana Wachowski, Laura Jane Grace, or Chaz Bono. In particular fuck TMZ, but ABC and Diane Sawyer handled things well if not quite pitch perfectly. Also, of course, it bares repeating that the experiences of white multi-millionaire transwomen have important dis-similarities from the experiences of the rest of us and can serve as a distraction if we aren't careful.

This morning's discussion (well last weeks, I'm behind on my posting) is that Jenner claims to be attracted to women and to be a woman, but not to be gay. I have trans friends who want to stake out this position as well, and defend Jenner for claiming it, but I also have trans friends who want to insist that if you are a woman who is attracted to other women, then you are a gay woman whether you admit it or not. And I definitely feel pulled both ways myself here, so I want to explore the question a little.

Most immediately there is a tension between gayness as a pattern of attraction and gayness as a matter of identity, culture and/or community. The American Psychological Association recently defined sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.” Each side of this definition can be problematized (When do isolated incidents become a “pattern?” What if romantic and sexual attractions conflict? What if someone identifies one way but has community membership in another way? Etc.) But more saliently, the two halves of this definition can easily be in conflict, and in several ways. Consider the classic “closet case,” a man who has an enduring pattern of attraction to other men, but nonetheless self-identifies as straight and tries to have minimal or adversarial interactions with the broader community of gay males. Are we to say they are gay despite their opposition to gayness, because of the first part of the definition, or that they aren't gay because of the second part? Usually I think we lean to saying they are gay despite themselves in this case. But shift it just a little, imagine a black guy, who occasionally has sex with other men, but wants to keep it on the “down low” and doesn't feel comfortable using the terms and markers of white gay male culture, and uses terms like MSM instead of gay or bi. Do we still want to say that they are gay despite their own self-understanding? What if the person we are thinking about has a pattern of attraction to males, but only actually has sex with other men for money, or only while in prison, or other border cases?

Or to switch over to Jenner, and I and many other transwomen. I have an enduring pattern of attraction to mostly women, no doubt. But am I women enough myself to count as a lesbian or a gay woman? I'm women enough already to call myself trans, and to correct people when they use male pronouns for me, but I still accept neutral pronouns more often than I ask for female ones. And I certainly don't feel I can demand female pronouns yet. Maybe someday.  There isn't really a good word for a gender-neutral person attracted primarily to women.*  Gynophile is an old word, but has been used in a bunch of different ways by Freud, Chodorow, Money, and especially Blanchard, who I dislike intensely.  Yuck, I'll pass.  Jenner doesn't even ask for neutral pronouns yet. And lesbians are not just any old set of women, they are a community that has become tight-knit over the years, often in response to rejection from biological families and repression from the culture at large. Lesbian culture definitely has gateways for women who have recently come out to themselves to enter and learn the culture. Ciswomen undergo a process of shifting from a mere pattern of lesbian attractions, to identity and community membership as lesbians too.  But these entryways function so-so or worse for transwomen in transition. Often we are simply not welcome in lesbian spaces and at lesbian events. And even when we are, the processes of learning the culture and coming to feel like a member of the community don't work the same for transwomen as they do for ciswomen.  My case is even trickier, because the dating scene is one of the main gateways into community, and as a married person I've never been part of the lesbian dating scene.

This exchange was clearly intended as sarcasm, but this IS how it works in the case of trans folk. I have an actual letter from my therapist, and I celebrated when I got it.  I haven't done the paperwork with the state yet, and it's expensive and I may not get around to it for a while (especially since all 50 states still only allow M or F as genders, rather than the broader palates allowed by Facebook, or countries like New Zealand, Australia and India.) Some transfolk never get the gender marker on their driver's licence changed, some never get a letter from their therapists (either because they find an informed consent clinic, or don't wind up getting HRT). But, yeah, I did some of the paperwork, and not other bits. Have I done enough paperwork to count as gay?  I feel ambivalent about it myself, and whether I am accepted as a lesbian by other LGBT folks varies greatly.  It is entirely possible to interpret the LGBT acronym as implying that I am not an L, because I am a T instead... sigh ... that's one of the many problems of mixing categories of different types in parallel.

My current running joke is that I am Chian.   When I get the blank look, I explain that Chios is the island right next to Lesbos in the Aegean Sea.  So I'm not exactly a lesbian yet, but I'm definitely in the vicinity.  Even the term "lesbian" is an odd one.  Its an old Victorian understanding of same sex attraction, parallel to terms like Sapphist, Uranian, or invert.  It's a metaphorical reference to Sappho of Lesbos one of the great poets of antiquity, who wrote about attraction to women.  Thus it was an oblique code phrase for the learned to pass information to each other without necessarily scandalizing others.  My older very Christian friend Jim Stilwell read an anonymous Hoosier poem from the turn of the last century, about a guy getting up the courage to kiss a lady, at our open mike poetry in April.  And he totally missed the ending where writer promises never to bother the lady again now that she has revealed to him that she is a follower of Sappho.  That was how the term worked a century ago.  (BTW, there is plenty of reason to suspect that the historical Sappho was what we would now call bisexual, despite how the Victorians and Edwardians used her partial memory.)  So it always seems odd to me to claim that some is a lesbian without admitting it to themselves.  The term has roots in metaphor, being metaphorically like Sappho of Lesbos, so taking it really literally seems counter-intuitive to me.  Am I metaphorically like Sappho of Lesbos who lived over 2,500 years ago?  Er ... kinda?  Is Bruce Jenner?  Sorta, I guess.

But is there space for a trans woman to be primarily attracted to other women without being a gay woman?  It's surely normal for cis and trans folks to go through a questioning phase where they aren't certain yet.  And it can take a while to get comfortable using terms and self-describing in ways that are unfamiliar, even if you agree they "technically" fit you.  But those aren't the real problem.  The real problem is that attraction, identity and community are all separate things, and we all sorta know it, but we lack good terms for distinguishing them.  You can have the attractions, but not the identity or community membership.  Jenner has sought out other high profile transwomen to ask advice and is trying to find ways to be a genuine part of the trans community and culture.  Has Jenner worked to become part of the lesbian community yet? I have no idea.  There is a person I talk to sometimes, who once identified as trans, but got sorta exiled from her local trans community, and is now leery about calling herself "trans."  She experiences the same tension, admitting that she "technically" counts as trans, but feeling uncomfortable calling herself trans any more.  The terms, taken as labels or definitions, seem broadly inclusive, the actual experience of using the terms rarely lives up to the inclusiveness of the definitions.  Prescriptively we intend the labels to include folk who "count" whether they self-identify or not, descriptively we are often leery of applying the terms to border cases (except when we are accusing people of being in denial).  Indeed, for gender terms, there is a pretty clear ethos in the trans community of take people's self-descriptions and designations seriously. But when it comes to orientation, we seem far more cavalier about applying our understanding of someone's patterns of behavior to them, regardless of their opinion in the matter.  And this can lead to bi-erasure, false outing, and all kinds of other problems.  Indeed, even if we are thinking of patterns of attraction, how we categorize the possible answers can be as tricky as which question we are trying to ask, when we ask about sexual orientation.  Asexuals seem like a legitimate sexual orientation to me, but they tended to get erased in a lot of understandings of sexual orientation, probably because they are only beginning to organize as a community or culture.  Or consider terms like "sapiosexual" or "submissive"  those sure seem like they are describing enduring patterns of emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction, even if they aren't using gender as their main way of categorizing, (and both do have identities and communities that sometimes go with the terms).  Is "submissive" a sexual orientation? Suppose we call someone a bisexual because they seem to date both men and women, and they reply no, I'm a submissive, I'm attracted to people who will dominate me, and whether they are male or female is less important to me.  Do we claim that we were still technically correct, or admit that their self-understanding is probably more salient than our external view?  If Jenner wants to insist that he is a woman, and attracted to other women, but is not a gay woman, well I might be curious as to why he thinks that, but I think it's possible for those three claims to be all true together, and I don't think it's my job to second guess other people's claims about their orientation. 

On the flip side, I had a cis friend who identified as a lesbian for decades and was clearly in the community and fit the attraction pattern.  Then she started dating a trans guy.  And she had to admit that she no longer fit the strict definition, and started using words like bi and queer instead.  But she still had deep roots in the lesbian community, and still had the identity in her own head and heart.  It was HARD for her to accept that she no longer got to self-describe as lesbian.  She did it out of respect for her boyfriend, and I'm proud she did, but no one should pretend it wasn't hard for her.  My wife likes the term heteroflexible now that my transness calls her own heterosexuality into question, but the parallel homoflexible doesn't seem to get nearly as much use (and sounds clunky and often gets interpreted as betrayal ... sigh) ...  An Indianapolis group I know uses the phrase "past, present, and future women" and unpack that by saying "In other words, if you were assigned female at birth, or currently identify as a woman, or are actively working toward that, you are welcome at xxxxx." Bruce and I can fit there.  But we can't assume that everyone who uses the terms lesbian or gay women intend to include us in their communities, or identities, regardless of what formal definitions they would give if asked.

I think it's very disingenuous to imagine that sexual orientation is matter purely of attraction pattern, without any reference to self-identity, culture or community.  Of course, one of the reasons we continue to talk this way is because of ongoing fights on politics and religion, especially on the topic of choice.  You don't choose your pattern of attraction, you do choose some elements of your self-identity, behavior and community membership.  The truth that sexual orientation is both not a choice, and also partially a choice, can look like it is unnecessarily giving ground to anti-LGBT ideologies that want to portray LGBT identities as pure choices (and morally wrong ones at that). But my gender is a complex mix of things I didn't get to choose (including my body, and my brain, and the dysphoria I experience, what it says on some documents about me), and things I DO get to choose (including how I present myself publicly and interact with others, and what it says on other documents about me.)  I fear that sexual orientation is like that too, a complex mix of chosen and unchosen elements interlaced tightly together

I am slowly learning lesbian culture, and I do feel genuinely closer to being a lesbian than I was a year ago.  I also pass as female better, and get more acceptance from other lesbians.  But it's all a work in progress ...

P.S.  Everyday Feminism just ran a little article about this comic by from the strip Robot Hugs. Notice that even though the artist K, is non-binary, genderqueer, and careful to only talk about their sexuality with the term "queer" the editors of Everyday Feminism describe it and title their version of it in terms of "lesbian" sexuality.  I have many things I want to say about this comic, including how it is bittersweet for me, and I recognize myself in all 3 of the main characters, but they keep coming out wrong, so for today let me simply note that I guess the term for a non-binary person who is attracted to mostly women IS lesbian, according to the editors of Everyday Feminism.  At least for some non-binary genderqueers. ... sigh

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eggs Beltaine

Eggs Beltaine is a seasonal dish for late April/early May, more on that in a bit

1 lb of asparagus, woody ends trimmed off, and the rest cut into 1 inch chunks, (note 1 lb of asparagus is a lot ...)
4-6 Tbsps of butter (if you wanna get the good stuff it will shine here)
4 Tbsp of flour
2 1/2 cups of milk
salt, pepper
cayenne (a few dashes)
4 hard cooked eggs, chopped
4-6 English muffins, halved and then toasted

Steam the asparagus in a microwave in a covered dish with about an inch of water in it.  Cook it further than you would for eating it plain, but don't cook it all the way to British-style or canned asparagus. It should be past crisp tender, but not excessively mushy.  In our microwave this is 4 minutes.  Drain and set aside
In a medium saucepan melt butter over medium heat.  When the butter begins to foam add the flour and whisk, cooking for about a minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk.  Salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Continue to cook over medium until boiling.  Remove from heat and mix in the chopped boiled eggs and asparagus.  Adjust seasonings.  This dish needs a fair bit of salt, but it's easy to add too much cayenne, although a good hint of cayenne is lovely in it.
Ladle asparagus/sauce mixture over the English Muffin halves, You can garnish with parsley, or dust a little more cayenne on top for color.

Even out kids like this one, if it doesn't have too much cayenne.

This dish is a great way to show off fresh asparagus, especially at the beginning of asparagus season.  It's a good way to use up left over Easter eggs too.  The combination of asparagus and eggs makes it especially appropriate for celebrating Beltaine itself, if you celebrate Beltaine.  Our family tends to make it as soon as we get our first asparagus in April, and then again in a few weeks for Beltaine proper, and maybe once more near the end of the asparagus harvest ...

Some Folk From The Trans 100 2015 Class That Have Touched Me

I find it personally useful to look for genderqueer people who are leading happy, productive lives to use as role-models, and I like having a variety of role-models to sorta mix and match. I have a much larger post on this over here. One of the things I've done in the past is go through the 2013 and 2014 classes of the Trans 100 for inspirational non-binary lives, and the 2015 class was announced a couple weeks ago. (I know I'm late here.) There are a bunch of cool non-binary folks in it. Obviously, there are many cool binary trans people on the list to, but that's not my focus.  Ok I lied, I want to talk about a few of them too. So this post is sort of my "Non-Binary Hero/ines Part 2, plus a little extra …

Some of the Cool Non-Binary Folk from the Trans 100 2015 Class ...


Avi Bowie -
Avi is a multi-racial, genderqueer, from Chicago who does social work and social justice stuff, especially with LGBTQ youth.

Rashida Davison -
 
Rashida is a non-binary artist and activist from North Carolina, whose been living in Columbus, OH. Rashida is involved in leadership in TransOhio, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as filmmaking and photography work. They take they.

Sam Feder

Sam is a filmmaker, artist and professor, who takes gender neutral pronouns. Sam's films include “Boy I Am” and “Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Present Danger.” I've been unable to determine if Sam is related to the Ellen Feder and Eva Feder that I've written about before ...

Nic Kay


NIC is an artist whose work straddles performance, video, collage, printmaking, and installation. They have roots in NYC and Chicago. "The least challenging thing I've done in my life is embrace the nonbinary gender spectrum. What's been more challenging? Coming out as a teenager. Living on my own afterward. Moving from New York City to Chicago. Navigating the world in general as a black person in America."


Malachi Larrabee-Garza   

Malachi is a mixed-race genderqueer who works on juvenile justice and incarceration issues, as well as working with queer and trans incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks. S/he also does a bunch of cheap consulting to “broke organizations who are changing the world.”

Jiz Lee 

I already wrote about Jiz Lee here, but they are also in the 2015 Trans 100 class. They have a blog at JizLee.com, are currently editing their first book, COMING OUT LIKE A PORN STAR, with essays on intersectional experiences in pornography. They are also the co-editor of the Porn Studies Journal Special Issue: Porn and Labour.



Petey Peterson 

Petey is the Program Coordinator for Vanderbilt Universities Office of LGBTQI Life, and also did work with academic LGBT groups at Iowa State. They are very involved in MBLGTACC (Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference), which I have managed not to go to for several years in a row, even though several of my friends and acquaintances in daily life have … Petey takes they.

Ms. Dr. Joseph L. Simonis (Josie)

Josie is an athlete, activist, writer, and scientist. Josie is a conservation biologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and has done ecological research in the past. They are also heavily involved in supporting trans identities in the world of athletics. She's done football and wrestling in the past, but these days skates Roller Derby for the Windy City Rollers and Team Illinois and has competed at national and international championship tournaments, as well as editing the derby news website Derby Central. Personally, I'm also intrigued by Simonis's decisions for navigating academia with publications under separate names. She takes both she/her AND they/them. They use Ms. AND Dr. They include the names Joseph AND Josie on their resumes, CVs and webpages. Maybe she identifies as a transwoman rather than a non-binary person, and if so I certainly apologize, but she displays her prior male persona in public presentation a lot more than many trans people feel comfortable doing ...

Turner Stulting 

Turner is a junior at Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania where ze is majoring in women’s and gender studies with minors in public policy and social justice. Turner is the President of the campus Gender and Sexuality Alliance and the Assistant Director of Common Ground, a student-led diversity immersion retreat. Ze is agender “and to me that means that I don’t identify as a man or a woman, or anywhere in-between. I just identify as Turner.” Ze's pronouns are ze/zir/zirs, rather than my own far superior ze/hir/hirs. Ze must be secretly in league with Raphael Carter ...

Alok Vaid-Menon 

alok is a trans South Asian writer, performance artist, and community organizer based in New York City who grew up in Texas. Alok currently serves on staff of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center for and by queer and trans people of color. They also are on tour with DarkMatter, an activist poetry collaboration.

It's possible that there are other folks on the 2015 Trans 100 list who think of themselves as non-binary even though I can find no mention of it in their most easy to find online biographies, especially if they use he or she sometimes. Rev. Megan Rohrer, for instance, seems to be a trans woman, and uses she, but also carefully avoids using any pronouns in places it seems a bit awkward. Perhaps she thinks of herself as genderqueer instead a transwoman. I can't tell. Do I read too much in? Probably. I can't imagine the lines one must carefully walk while trying to be a Lutheran minister. So I apologize if I missed anyone who should be included, or included anyone in this list who doesn't think of themselves as non-binary. A particularly tricky case is the next one ...

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu 

She is a kumu, a teacher in the Native Hawaiian tradition, focusing on hula and Native Hawaiian culture. She takes the pronoun she, and identifies as a “transwoman” in English, but a “mahu” in Hawaiian. Does that make her a binary transwoman, or a non-binary person? I have no idea. Frankly, it's kinda nice to problematize even the binary/non-binary distinction with an actual lived life, rather than as an abstruse point of theory. She's the founder of the Kulia Na Mamo transgender health project, and the subject of the award-winning PBS documentary KUMU HINA.

My Colleagues

The thing is there are also several clearly binary trans women in the 2015 Trans 100, that I want to highlight too, because I work with them ...

Greta Gustava Martela 
That's Nina on the left, and Greta on the right ...
is a trans dyke and a software engineer living in San Francisco, CA. Ms. Martela and her partner, Nina Chaubal, founded Trans Lifeline, a crisis line for transgender people staffed entirely by transgender people. Since its launch in September 2014 Trans Lifeline has grown very quickly. In January of 2015 Trans Lifeline’s ninety operators talked to transgender people in crisis for 513 hours. I email with Greta and Nina somewhat often, and think of myself as working for them. I'm so proud of the work they've done, and the recognition they've gotten for their work.

Alexis Paige 
Alexis is a bisexual mixed race Korean trans woman. She assisted in the planning of Portland, OR's first official Trans Pride March, planning the Meaningful Care Conference (a national LGBTQ medical conference), and in the promotion of and education about Oregon state’s Medicaid program ending exclusions of transition related transgender healthcare. Currently she works at the Cascade AIDS Project assisting people in applying for healthcare and is a member of the Trans inclusion committee at the Cascade AIDS Project. She also volunteers as a HIV tester and counselor at monthly trans community nights at Pivot in Portland. More to the point she is a fellow operator for the Trans Lifeline, and I have interacted with her briefly.

Emma Violet Todd 

Emma is the Deputy Executive Director of the Trans Lifeline. At the Lifeline her focus includes developing better outreach and resources for trans people in rural communities and trans people of color. Emma has also volunteered with organizations such as GLSEN, Equality Illinois, Oklahomans for Equality, and Pride at the University of Tulsa to advocate for support, equality, and liberation of the LGBT community. She lives in rural Illinois. Again I periodically interact with her.

More Special Mentions from the 2015 class of the Trans 100


Elijah Oberman - a transman punk Jewish violinist who performs with the Shondes. I am not sure, but half suspect that he is a friend of a friend ...

Jennell Jaquays  - a transwoman who was involved in the tabletop roleplaying industry and video game industry back in the day. (She was with Judge's Guild, and has art and writing credits in a bunch of 70s and 80s RPGs, and on the video gaming side did a lot of the conversion work to get arcade games like Pac-man and Donkey-Kong onto home platforms.) She's also involved in PressXY.com a cool a site for transgender issues in gaming.


As before, please mention any non-binary folk who have inspired you, that I haven't showed yet in the comments ...



Monday, April 13, 2015

The Value of Not Knowing and Not Doing

It is also not Being ...
 So one of my philosopher friends posted this quote by Adrian Johnston (who I don't know), and it provoked quite the discussion, enough that I felt I ought to spell out my thoughts more clearly on my own blog. 
“Like the Romantics and Pietists before them, numerous post-idealists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries end up promoting a facile mysticism whose basic underlying logic is difficult to distinguish from that of negative theology. The unchanging skeletal template is this: There is a given “x;” This “x” cannot be rationally and discursively captured at the level of any categories, concepts, predicates, properties, etc.; Yet, nevertheless, the only true task of authentic thought is to circle endlessly around this sacred void of ineffability, repeating ad infinitum (and ad nauseum) the gesture of grasping at the purportedly ungraspable. The names of this empty “x” vary while the pattern stays constant: Will, Life, Power, Temporality, Being, Other, Flesh, Difference, Trauma, and so on (up to even certain pseudo-Lacanian versions of the Real). Not only is this boringly predictable negative theological cookie cutter an all-too-easily grasped conceptual scheme of its own—even if one were totally to concede the truth of one or more of these ineffabilities as they are held up by their numerous enthusiastic advocates, there is so much more of greater interest and urgency for thinking to do than to remain absorbed in the sedentary meditative exercise of doing nothing but fixedly staring into a dark abyss.”

Now Johnson is published and I am not, and he is engaging in a longer polemic for philosophical materialism, which doesn't particularly tempt me. But I am definitely one of the “enthusiastic advocates” “of these ineffabilities” that is being sneered at here, and several of the other philosophers in the discussion expressed similar disdain for ineffabilism, calling it a “pet hate” or not to be confused with “real work.” My own stance is that Johnston is more or less right in this passage about the post-idealist pattern, but that his tone leaves a lot to be desired. Some people thrive on chasing after doing and thinking that feels urgent to them, and some people thrive on sedentary meditative exercises that involve a lot of staring into a dark abyss. Philosophy has room and roles for both types, and most lives should probably have at least a little of each style in them. So I want to do a little bit of a discussion and defense of the value of negative theological approaches, of contemplation, of staring into the dark abyss, on not-knowing and not-doing, as opposed to more positive philosophy approaches, activities, theory-building and system building, striving to know and do.

At the most basic level, theory removal clears space for new theories to emerge. My wife had a great analogy. Before she cooks, she clears away the stuff on the counter so she has space to set up what she's doing, so she can see what's what. Skepticism helps clear away weaker theories, but contemplation can help clear away theories that might be fine in some contexts but aren't necessarily helpful or relevant to this particular task. When we clear the counter before cooking, some things get thrown away, some things get composted, but some things go into the wash for later re-use. But not-knowing, starting over as much as possible from emptiness or openness, rather than cluttered pre-conception helps us to begin-knowing, instead of always being stuck in continuing-our-pre-knowings. We “clear away” our pre-conceptions of Being or Difference, in part to begin to strive to form more genuine conceptions of Being or Difference. Perhaps in a sense the negative theology moment of “clearing away” IS more boring than the positive theory-building moment of “cooking” but they are properly allies in joint project.

Even if we are thinking more of personal life examples than philosophical theory-building, the contemplative work seems to help with being able to cultivate a detached observation of our own behaviors or patterns in our life that allows us to then begin addressing them productively. It is especially helpful when ego and psychological defenses would otherwise interfere with the process. When I think about my eating habits, or why I'm always behind in housework, or why I shy away from certain topics in conversation that seem like I'd be interested in them - a step of negative philosophy, of clearing away old theories, or letting-things-happen-without-yet-building-theories-about-them, or refraining from judgment or conclusion, is often key to getting past places I've been blocked, especially if I've been block their many times before. When knowing doesn't work, sometimes refraining-from-knowing does. When doing doesn't work, sometimes letting-happen does.

If contemplation taken to the extreme looks like facile mysticism, lazy, depressing accomplishment of nothing, then active thinking and doing taken to the extreme looks like mental busywork, the perfection of anxiety, a spasm of ambition thrown upon a meaningless canvas. Both are caricatures. But people need a balance of work and rest, of stress and relief, of theory and mystery. There are plenty of lives that are out of balance and need more of one side or the other than they are actually managing to get. I ain't here to promote a “facile” mysticism, but I know plenty of Americans who sure seem to me to need more mysticism than they are in fact getting, and you start off on the easy stuff before you tackle the more difficult stuff.

More to the point, I find that my contemplative, ineffabilist, skeptical, aporeticist work has made me personally more compassionate than I used to be. I look at someone's situation, and I admit that I don't really understand what it is like to be them. I have guesses not answers. It is harder to look down on people than it used to be. It is easier for me to feel solidarity. When I identified with particular theories, it was easy to see others as divided from me by our differences at the theory level, as opponents, as deluded, as wrong or lesser or others. Now as I feel uncertain and questioning before wondrous complexity, others feel like allies before the vastness, even if they use different words to try to express themselves. I stare into the dark abyss, and I feel a continuity with countless other folks, full of many differences, who stare into the dark abyss from time to time whether they want to or not. Our frailty unites us.  Ellen Feder had a complex thought on frailty and dignity that I need to post more about in the next month or two, but for now, it is enough to say that our frailty unites us.

I struggled with arrogance a lot when I was younger. I was right about so many things, that it was easy to think I was right much more than I actually was. I knew what was right and what was wrong, and could be pretty annoying self-righteous about it. And I knew how the world should be, and had confidence that humans could make it that way, and were in the process of doing so. But knowledge is more non-monotonic than I gave it credit for. We learn new things and they call into question old conclusions that we thought we knew. Science progresses in part by rejecting past conclusions. And so does legal reasoning, or artistic work, or knowing in our daily lives. It was fun when I focused on knowing, instead of the limits of knowing, but I wasn't as good of a person. Similarly, I thought I had a lot more power than I actually did. Both in knowing and doing, I over-estimated myself.  I enjoyed using my power and freedom, rather than exploring the limits of my power and freedom.  As I worked on negative philosophies: negative theologies, negative ontologies, anti-epistemologies, un-logics, a-porias, and so on, I came to have more appreciation for the give and take and non-static nature of the limits of knowledge, and for the real, but complicated limits of my own ability to know and do things. Had I been able to impose my Utopian dreams on the world, it wouldn't have been as glorious as I once thought. Many of my ambitions were not just overestimations, they were misplaced. I am a smart person, and I have been wrong about the central things in my life more than once. The negative paths humble us again and again, often unpleasantly. We are wrong more often than we like to admit. We are often guessing when we pretend at knowing. We are selfish, or privileged, or fail to understand, or have poorly thought-out goals. Or a thousand other frailties and limitations. And the negative philosophies, the philosophies of our limits, help us to overcome our own arrogance.

It's also more than that. It is frustrating to lives within our limitations. I want soooo many things for my world, my nation, my state, my community, my family, my loved ones, myself, that I cannot achieve. I want answers to big questions that I have not been able to suss out. I want LOTS of things that I have failed at. And living within those limitation, those frailties, I find it perennially difficult. But the negative philosophies are a balm, and constant aide for me. The Pyrrhonists say that they avoid belief on weighty matters that are not forced upon them, so as to reach “freedom from trouble” (ataraxia) to the extent that they can, and moderation in feeling even on feelings forced upon one. Buddhism, Taoism, Negative Christian Theology, Pyrrhonism, many other philosophical traditions, even this post-Idealist stuff Johnston is reacting against, they hope and sometimes claim to be able to help us to live within our limitations. I want lots of things. But I no longer think that actively striving for them is always the best response. Some wants ought to be worked towards, but some ought to be checked, some let go, some allowed to happen as they will. Our world is too dialectical, sometimes by striving we only strengthen the opposition. We are too limited. We can't achieve all the things we want, and it would turn out horrible if we could. We need to be held in check, and to hold each other in check. And we need to find ways to make peace with our limits. Philosophy of exploring our limits is one classic way to work on this, and staring contemplatively into the void is another. I was just talking with a lady who feels that she does not matter, and her problems don't matter, and her life doesn't matter, because no one can give her solutions to her fucking medical problem instead of trying to give her consolations. She is dying, and raging, and flailing at the stark limits of her power and the power of those who love and care for her. She is not alone. This is how we are. And we need, we need the ashen never-enough of consolation … We need to struggle against our limits, and we need to find ways to be consoled within our limits.

I'm not trying to belittle knowing and doing either, or the styles of philosophy that focus on them. Theory building, system building, trying to do things in the world, these are sane approaches too. If you want to do, you will never do enough. If you want to know, you will never know enough. That's OK, try anyway if you want. In my account, these approaches fail; no theory is adequate, the truth surpasses all system, the world cannot be fixed via action. But these strategies and active philosophies and life-paths of active work, they accomplish other things of value in the process of trying and failing at their main goals. That is actually how contemplation and negative philosophies and un-theorizing work too, they fail to speak of the ineffable they try and fail to speak about, but accomplish other worthwhile goals in the midst of their failure.

Vonnegut says
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

For us, the urge to theorize is very natural, but so is the urge to step back from theory into questioning and wondering. Both are parts of philosophizing. My wife is definitely more active in her approach to life and philosophy, and I am definitely more contemplative. That's OK.  At least that's how things seem to me, if you disagree, tell me about it, maybe we can hash through things together ...


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Demitheism

In honor of Easter and Passover, I'm going to revisit a topic I used to be very interested in, but haven't messed with much in years: demitheism. Demitheism is a word that I invented years ago to mean “middle positions between theism and atheism, between 'a God exists' and 'no God exists.'” (Between explicit hard theism and explicit hard atheism - for both terms there is considerable dispute on how best to define them, and we could be vastly more careful if we we're doing basically back of the napkin philosophical sketches.) Thus demitheism tends to be compromise positions that answer “does God exist?” with things like “well sorta, it's complicated.” You might think that there is little space for compomise here, and even less motive to try, after all people who believe in God tend to BELIEVE, and people who reject belief in God, tend to REJECT. But, in fact, you can build lots of interesting middle positions here, and historically philosophers have felt pushed towards demitheisms by a wide variety of concerns and pressures.

The most obvious and widely explored middle position here is agnosticism, the position that one does not personally know whether one or more Gods exist or not. OK, fair enough, I don't have much to say about agnosticism that hasn't been said before, but I think there are lots more possibilities. To quote myself 12 years ago:
“But agnosticism is only the beginning of the possible range of middle positions. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is factually meaningless and therefore in neither true nor false, what A. J. Ayer called theological noncognativism. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is meaningful, but still manages to be neither-true-nor-false, because Aristotle’s law of excluded middle is an error. Perhaps the claim “a God exists” is both-true-and-false. Perhaps existence is a fuzzy predicate over divinities, and the truth-value of the claim “at least one God exists” is .73. Perhaps God’s existence is underdetermined by the facts, but both God’s existence and non-existence are consistent extensions of the facts. Perhaps the existence of at least one God is a claim that rational agents should assert on some occasions, and retract on other occasions. Perhaps all rational agents should assert this claim at some point in their lives, but should also retract it eventually. Perhaps the appropriate reply to someone who asserts that “a God exists” is not the same on every occasion.”
And as we'll see we could go on. I came to demitheisms originally as a way of thinking about logical structure, what are the options for creating meaningful middle positions? What are the places in our practices of giving and critiquing accounts where there is space for middle positions like this? But, over time I've also become interested in the question of why someone might WANT to take a complicated middle position on a topic that has more usually been disputed between sharply divided camps.

Agnostic Demitheism
Most basically, one might simply be interested in humbly admitting the limits of one's own personal knowledge. If you say “I personally don't know whether a God exists or not,” you are staking a middle position between atheism and theism, but you aren't really asserting a middle position. You aren't saying that theism and atheism are both inadequate or incomplete; one of them might still turn out to be dead right, just that you aren't convinced of either yet. You aren't disagreeing with atheism or theism, you are merely unconvinced. There is lots of space for non-assertive forms of demitheism. “Weak” atheism or “implicit” is lack of belief in any God, without actually rejecting belief in any God. Perhaps one has simply never considered the issue, or perhaps one grew up with a conceptual scheme where gods and their lacks are not an obvious issue for reflection. Perhaps one is pre-verbal or brain damaged. Similarly, I've always thought there is space for “implicit” or “weak” theisms, people who have some belief in God, but haven't ever really understood atheism enough to consciously reject it. A child perhaps raised in a family which believes in God, but who hasn't ever reflected for themselves yet much on the topic.

We may simply not have reflected enough to reach a solid opinion, or perhaps we have reflected, but not found any grounds yet that seem particularly decisive to us. Some agnostics still hope that they will eventually come down on one side or the other, but are as it were, still undecided. Other agnostics feel like they have exhausted any strategy they might have for coming to know the answer (short of death or miracle), and no longer have much hope of deciding the issue. As a semi-joke we call a “militant agnostic” someone who takes the position “I don't know if God exists, and neither do you.” This starts looking more like an assertive position on the limits of human knowledge, than a mere admission of one's own lack of knowledge, but I've known folks that believed this way on basically epistemic grounds.  It is perfectly possible to be a demitheist on epistemic grounds. If a God existed that wanted to hide its existence (perhaps to avoid being blamed for past decisions), it's hard to imagine how humans would go about trying to “catch” a hiding God.

Buddhist and Ignostic Demitheisms -
Gautama Buddha famously supposedly takes a middle position on the existence of a creator deity. Story goes, that Buddha is asked if there was a single creator Deity ultimately responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. And Buddha is supposedly omniscient at this point (or rather has all-embracing-knowledge, sarvajnajnana – the difference between Western and Buddhist conceptions of omniscience is an interesting topic in it's own right). Buddha replies that if a man was shot by a poison arrow, he might be anxious on the question of who shot him, but the more pressing concern is getting the poison arrow out, and inquiry into who is responsible can wait until later. Similarly, Buddha argues, we need to escape the bonds of suffering first, and the question of whether a single creator God exists or not is not helpful until, at best, after this process has been completed. Buddha leaves open the possibility that the answer might turn out to be yes, or no, or it's complicated. Perhaps the process of becoming enlightened and escaping suffering will dissolve the question completely. (The story is told in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, as one of the 14 unanswerable question, and some of the others are explicitly stated to be destined to dissolve, if I recall right). Buddha's worry seems not to be about the limits of knowledge, but about what kind of metaphysical disputes are helpful or non-helpful. He refuses to answer about whether the universe is infinite or finite, eternal or not, and whether the self (jiva) is identical to the body or not. He characterizes answers to these as being like a net of theories that can entangle one, and refuses to be “drawn into” the net. This is clearly a different kind of theological non-assertion, from the agnostic and with a different motivation.

Similarly, Rabbi Sherwin Wine coins the term “ignosticism” in the process of trying to articulate a view in the 1960s. He argues that before we can even productively dispute about whether a God or gods exist or not we have to clarify the meaning of the term “God” sufficiently for us to be able to dispute with each other rather than talk past each other. Before the question “does God exist?” can be responsibly explored we have to answer a “prerequisite” question, “What do we mean by 'God' in the question “Does God exist?'” The problem according to Wine, is that we never actually finish answering the prerequisite question sufficiently, to be able to ask the existence question appropriately. The question of whether God exists or not never manages to arise, we live and die, and spend our lives and loves working slowly towards the question. This is what he calls the ignostic position. It's traditional to interpret Wine and Ignosticism as a species of theological noncognativism ala Ayer's (we'll see more in a bit), but I've always found it more similar to the Buddha's worry. The problem that animates Wine, is not that the statement “God exists” might turn out meaningless rather than true or false, but that it is not-meaningful-yet, that we have more pressing issues to deal with, before we can give that problem the attention that it eventually deserves.

Pyrrhonist Demitheism
A traditional agnostic claims not to know whether God exists or not, but isn't necessarily actively cultivating this absence of knowledge. A Pyrrhonist skeptic takes a more programmatic approach, actively working to cultivate an absence of knowledge and even belief on weighty topics like whether or not God exists. Like Buddha, the Pyrrhonist is trying to avoid being tangled up in nets of theory. The Pyrrhonist skeptic seeks to balance arguments in favor of God's existence with arguments opposing God's existence and thereby come to an “epoche” – or suspension of belief, where balanced between competing considerations one finds one self in a lack of belief. If you find one side of the argument or the other to be overly tempting, you spend extra effort exploring the opposite side to restore balance. If you have insufficient arguments for one side, you employ one or more of the host of “modes” or generic arguments about the limits of human knowledge to help restore balance. The idea here is not at all like modern atheistic skepticism, but rather an active balancing of position in an attempt to “cancel out” both and remain at an extremely refined point of balance. The tradition has a lot of technical language about how to employ non-assertive “sounds” of skepticism “maybe” “perhaps it is so” “I suspend judgment” etc. The idea is that by attaining a very refined mental state of non-judgment, the skeptic will wind up in a fortunate mental state of having minimized their troubles as much as they can. For the Pyrrhonist skeptic taking a middle position between theism and atheism is part of a larger project of programmatically taking middle positions whenever one is able to, and this is though to be personally salutary.

Ontological Demitheisms
Even if you in some sense believe in God, God looks like a tricky limit case for the problem of existence. You can start from very traditional theism, and find yourself pushed slowly into saying careful complex, tricksy things about the extent to which God exists. In traditional Christian theology, for example, God is Creator, and all other things are Creations. God is radically unlike all created beings in a wide variety of ways, God has no parts, for example, and doesn't experience change, or indeed “undergo” or “experience” any thing of any kind.  God, as it were, happens to other things, things don't happen to God. Thomas Aquinas trying to do hard onto-theology in Book 1 of his Summa Theologica, has to say things like “God is not a substance” “God is not any sort of thing” and “God has no properties other than his own nature.” To the extent that God exists, God exists in a way radically dissimilar from the way all other things exist. Now there are lots of classic worries that things like words and intellectual categories break down when we are trying to apply them to God, and we'll see more of these in a bit, but words like “being” or “existence” are especially problematic cases. If God “exists,” then God “exists” in a way radically different from all other things that “exist” so why use the word “exist?” Indeed, sometimes basically theistic theologians will bite that bullet and say that God is “super-existent” rather than “existent” or is beyond-being, rather than being a being among beings.

Paul Tillich famously pushes this a little further, if God is Being (das Seiende) even the highest Being, then God cannot properly be said to be the source of all being, or the ground of all being, and thus, it is preferable to think of God as the ground of being-itself, and therefore not an example of being. You can see similar moves in Origen and Middle Platonism. Or to bring up more recent cases, recent Continental thinkers like to point out that a discourse requires some kind of ineffable background which grounds the discourse and can never properly become a foregrounded topic of that style of discourse.  In a similar way, beings require a framework-for-being to be, especially to be as-what-they-are, to be-in-the-foreground, and the framework-for-being cannot properly be. But when we start inquiring as much as we are able, into how to characterize or talk about the framework-for-being, it starts looking a lot like some of the ways theologians have talked about God.

Or we can phrase the problem in Heideggerese. We thought we knew what we meant by the term “being,” but now we are perplexed. If Wine's Ignosticism worries that we spend our whole lives exploring the question of the meaning of the term “God” and never progress to truly examining whether “God” exists - a later day Heideggerian can imagine us spending our whole lives exploring the question of the meaning of being, and never getting far enough in ontology to really understand being or existence well enough to truly progress to examining whether God “exists.” The theist finds that God's ontological situation is so different from the ontological situation of most beings that they start getting pushed to demitheism. The atheist ontologist finds that the nature and ground of being is so problematic, that even if they reject God, they wind up describing something vaguely similar playing similar roles.

Ineffabilist Demitheisms
Or perhaps the problem is not so much God's odd relationship with being, but God's odd relationship with words or conceptions. If we think that God is “ineffable” or “beyond all conceptualizations” then in particular “God exists” is going to fail to be true. Perhaps one thinks that all words fail to live up to the transcendent God, but some words nonetheless wind up being aimed at glorifying God.
One way that my favorite old theologian (Pseudo-Dionysius) puts it, is that each conception we have or try to frame to describe God, winds up describing something less than God, which we argue if they exist or not “We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it.” (The Mystical Theology, 1048B). When we say that God is Goodness, or Being-itself, or the Creator or All, or the big bearded Patriarch in the Sky, an omniscient-omnipotent-omnibenevolent person or whatever, these are conceptions which we can attempt to dispute as to whether they are existent or non-existent, but none of these are God. (At one point he calls them underhanging logoi.) We are really debating about the existence or non-existence of our own imperfect and limited conceptions of God. In a sense, we are back to Ignosticism, but rather than arguing, we should live our lives as a slow exploration of or journey towards (or wrestling match with) God, we are worrying that the mechanism of reference is failing us. For Pseudo-Dionysius, talking about God, much less disputing about God always winds up making a strawman argument. Indeed, in this picture, even if I try to assert that God exists, I fail and wind up only asserting something like this-conception-of-God-that-I-like-to-use exists.

Apophatic Demitheisms
We can get far more sophisticated in our accounts of the ineffability of God, and the many theological strategies that have been used over the ages to partially cope with this problem. Pseudo-Dionysius in particular has several other strategies, besides the one I just mentioned, but we are drifting towards my dissertation here, and I can talk too much about it. Short version, Pseudo-Dionysius has a methodology for trying to talking about God to the extent we can, while admitting it is impossible. This method involves making affirmations and denial in particular orders for particular reasons. This means that Pseudo-Dionysius asserts that God exists at one point, and denies that God exists at another point and says that God is beyond all assertions and denials at a third. We call it “apophasis” - “speaking-away” when someone says something, but also tries to “unsay” it, denying the things they themselves have asserted. In particular, Pseudo-Dionysius thinks that both the affirmation and denial that God exist, are useful things to teach people at different particular stages of their spiritual development. We encourage people to journey towards God by affirming conceptions a little bit more noble than what they already understand, and denying conceptions that they are already ready to outgrow. In a sense, the issue here is spiritual pedagogy, rather than epistemology, ontology, or philosophy of language. We assert “'Conception x of God' exists” and we deny “'Conception x-1 of God' exists.” But later on we will assert “'conception x+1 of God' exists” and deny “conception x of God' exists” for basically the same reasons. Eventually we will even deny of all conceptions of God that they exist, without affirming of any replacement conception, but only once we are confident that the student has understood the basic pattern leading to an apophatic demitheism.  Another funny thing about this picture, in a sense theism and atheism are imagined as working together here in a joint project of improving our understanding of God.

Demitheism as a Translation problem
Another fun form and motive for Demitheism is when we try to make sense of disparate traditions using common vocabulary, or use one style of philosophy to try to understand another. So for example, Samkhya-darsana and Yoga-darsana are two of the six orthodox (we might say “astika”) schools of traditional Hindu philosophy – we might say the Rationalist school and the Yoga school. Both are probably developing in the late BCE centuries and reach their traditional form in the early CE centuries, and both are remarkably similar.

But if we ask if the Samkhya-darsana of ancient Indian “Rationalists” were atheists things get complicated. For one thing, they are traditionally categorized as an “astika” (literally “there exists”) school rather than a “nastika” (“there doesn't exist”) school. In modern Hindi, astika does mean "theist," and nastika "atheist," and the classical-medieval six astika schools and four nastika schools do roughly fit this typology. But is that what “astika” really meant in classical and medieval times? There is dispute among medieval and modern scholars about what makes one school astika while another is nastika … is it taking the Vedas as authoritative (Manusmirti's 5th cent? position) or perhaps belief in another world for transmigration (Haribhadra's 9th cent position) or perhaps belief in an atman (Ghurye's 21st cent position) that makes a school astika. Heck, Nagarjuna in the 2nd (ish) century, lists Samkhya as a nastika school, even though most authorities list it as astika, so there may have been dispute there.

But, the question of whether the Samkhya-darsana were “atheists” or not gets even thornier. The Samkhya believed in “prakriti” but not “ishvara.” Indeed, the Yoga school has different aims and focus, but mostly borrow the Samkhya metaphysics whole cloth, except to add “ishvara” as one additional element of the metaphysical picture.  Roughly, prakriti is unified material being. It is a single thing which differentiates into smaller things. It is an uncaused cause. A prime mover and first cause, and the source of all material being. It is the ground of material being. You'll see it translated as “nature” sometimes, but it is “Nature” in the sense of an ontological prerequisite, not “nature” as the opposite of “culture” or “artificiality.” “Ishvara” in contrast, is a word for a personal God, or perhaps for a Supreme Being, it literally means the ruler of beauty, or maybe beloved lord.  Ishvara often means God conceived as transcendent over other gods, or the God to which one is most personally devoted, or God conceived as an object of desire. Most Hindu philosophies have thought of brahman/atman, as combining both prakriti and ishvara, as being both the first cause of all things, and the final cause of all things, as being both the source of being and the most supreme of beings. And that's how Abrahamic conceptions of God, usually work too, God is both being and lord, both first and last, both ground and ultimate goal. But the Samkhya school of philosophy asserts and explores the existence of prakriti, while denying and arguing against ishvara. And it's not entirely clear how to talk about this in other languages. Is the Samkhya saying that God exists, but not as a personal God? Perhaps, it is trying to be what we might call “Deist” but not “Theist.” Although that way of talking is problematic since they accept both holy scriptures and religious rituals. Or maybe the point of this is to accept efficient causation while denying final causation (although again their causal theories are complicated and use pretty different terminology than Hellenistic ideas of causation). Or maybe the point is to deny any kind of moral force or rightness to the way the universe is unfolding. Or maybe it's frankly “atheist.” Certainly the Samkhya school gets accused of atheism a lot in modern India. Nor are there really living Samkhyaist to address the question to, and the most obvious descendants of the samkhya-darshana, the yoga-darsana and shaiva siddanta, both gave up the rejection of ishvara. Samkhya has no problem with Aristotle's God, a first cause of all things, but it rejects Plato's form of the good. So uhm, are they theists or atheists? Er … it's not just a problem with theology, or pedagogy, or philosophy of language, but rather the contexts and histories are just so different … They never interacted with the word “theos” one way of the other, but neither did they ignore it. Rather they talked in their own way, in their own tradition, and we trying to categorize them, need some middle position between theism and atheism to do justice to their belief in prakriti as well as their rejection of ishvara.

Dialethist Demitheism
Dialethism is the position that there are true contradictions, that sometimes a statement and it's negation are both true. This directly violated Aristotle's understanding of the law of non-contradiction, but so be it, such philosophers disagree with Aristotle, it's not like that's never happened before. It is possible to motivate Dialetheism from several different cases, such as the liar's paradox or Russell's paradox. Graham Priest, the granddaddy of modern Dialethism, argues that dialethia arise at the boundaries of the expressable in a variety of contexts in formal semantics. Modern western Dialethists are usually motivated by issues in logic, rather than say ontology or theology – the sorites problem or the problem of reasoning from inconsistent case law. But there usually is an acknowledgement of the role of dialethic reasoning in Eastern philosophical contexts, the Buddhist logical system catuskoti, the Jain insistence on anekantavada, the role of nonduals in zen Buddhism, etc. If we are going to believe in true contradictions anyway, the question of God's existence seems like a classic case of a place we might want to assert a dialethia, for any or several of the reasons already mentioned. If God is importantly beyond existence, then perhaps we should say of “God exists” that it is both-true-and-false, or that “God exists” and “God does not exist” are both true, or however we like to phrase our asserted dialethia.

Summarizationist Demitheism
So my own position on philosophy of language and truth is an “error theory” in which all claims come out as being false if we are careful enough. Often I call my position summarizationism. Statements, properly understood, are trying to summarize complex situations for some particular purpose. Statements about the world always wind up being, in fact, false, but are often, helpful, appropriate summaries, or “close enough” for their intended purpose. This isn't really even a failing of language, statements are trying to draw our attention to some aspects of our complicated world, while eliding and drawing attention away from others. Rather truth is an overly strong goal, that misunderstands what we want out of semantics. Our world always transcends us. The situation is always more complicated than we can say. Words always fall short of worldly realities. Even these words. Obviously, like many of the other positions mentioned, I need to get cozy with self-refutation, but I'm OK with that.

One of the side effects of my general understanding of language and truth, is that I have to be a demitheist when it comes to God. “God exists” and “God doesn't exist” are both false. Both oversimplifications of a case which transcends us. And for me, God is not unique in this respect. “I exist” and “I don't exist” or even “The USA exists” and “The USA doesn't exist” are going to have roughly the same problem. The situation is too complicated. The USA is a political fiction, but a political fiction with real bite and a real history. I myself am more and less than my conceptions of myself. The world includes beings which need a ground of being, and also which stand-out from the background on their own (ex-ist, from ex-stare, “stand away from”). I'm like a Jain asserting anekantavada – the non-one-sideness of all things. The world just doesn't really fit into words, and neither do things like God which might be importantly beyond-the-world in some sense.

Theological Non-Cognativism
Logical Positivists used to argue that for an empirical claim to have factual meaningfulness it ought to have testable truth-conditions. Otherwise, we might waste time and mental energy trying to falsify claims (or better pseudo-claims) that are not even falsifiable in principle. Because of human limits, we must establish limits to the claims we are allowed to treat as factually meaningful, so that science can conduct its business effectively. Thus, a scientific materialist atheist, may find that their understanding of the philosophy of science forces them to back away from strong atheism, and assert instead that the claim “a God exists” is not factually meaningful, rather than being factually false. This view came to be known as theological non-cognativism, the idea that the claim “God exists” is meaningless because it lacks good testability conditions, rather than it being actually false, and it had quite a life in Anglo Philosophy from say the 1930s to 1980s. The theological non-cognativism of AJ Ayers looks like it's just atheism “phrased differently,” but the theological non-cognativism of someone like Dewi Phillips looks far more like someone searching for ways to talk about the weird grounds between theism and atheism.

Eventually, though many parts of the logical picture of the Logical Positivists have been beaten up badly over the course of the twentieth century. Quine argued that the empirical vs analytic distinction won’t hold up to close scrutiny, and that there is no strict distinction between observations and theoretical claims. Popper argued that falsifiability is a requirement for distinctively scientific claims, but not for all factual claims. Kuhn argued that claims which are factually meaningful in one paradigm are often factually incommensurate with claims from another paradigm. The Logical Positivist rules about meaningfulness seem to cut against themselves. Heck, Alston and Hick even used to argue that “eschatological verificationism” could supply adequate testability conditions to the hypothesis of God's existence dealing with the problem head on. Nonetheless, even if we can’t form rigorous criteria for when a claim is or is not factually meaningful, it might look like the claim “A God exists” is a particularly tempting candidate for being a non-factually meaningful claim.

Similarly Wittgenstein has a slightly different take on how roughly Positivist worries effect religion. According to him, the sense of the world must lie outside of the world, and thus outside of the possibility of expressing it via pictures of the world, and thus outside of the possibility of expressing it via language (6.4-7). Ethics, aesthetics, God, and the problems of life, all lie outside of the realm of possible speech, according to the Tractatus. Thus a Wittgensteinian might be suspicious of metaphysics of any kind, asserting OR denying the existence of God. Indeed, Wittgenstein goes one step further, he says “6.432 How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.” And while this is more extreme than traditional theism, religious perspectives have often wanted to imagine God as transcending the world in some sense, so as to distinguish theism from pantheism. Indeed, if God pre-existed the world and created the world, it would be odd to think of God as one of the beings IN the world.

But we habitually use the word “exists” to refer to beings which are in the world, such as chairs, or people, or lizards. Indeed, sometimes we even think that when we assert something’s existence we are asserting that it is in-the-world. But if so, then the transcendentalist theist’s claim that “God exists, but not as a being in the world” could be rendered as “God has some form of being other than existence” or “No God exists, although some God has a form of being other than being-in-the-world.” The more we take existence to be a matter of falling under the scope of an existential quantifier, the more extra-worldly being starts looking like non-existence.

Consistent Extension Demitheism
Another motivation for demitheism that I always use to explore, is what I called “consistent extension” demitheism, although I'm not familiar with anyone who has actually advanced this one. The idea is to look by analogy at cases like the axiom of choice, or the parallel postulate, or the relations between normal modal logics. The Axiom of Choice is formally independent of Zermelo-Fraekel set theory, ZF, which means that ZFC and ZF~C are both consistent and non-equivalent extension of ZF. ZF is “neutral” with respect to the axiom of choice. The axiom of choice is not already contained within ZF set theory, but both it and it's denial can be added to ZF set theory yielding coherent accounts of sets. Similarly the “neutral” geometry can be consistently extended to Euclidean, hyperbolic, or elliptical geometries.  Or the “smallest” Normal Modal Logic, K, can be consistently extended in a variety of importantly different and inter-related ways (T, D, S4, S5, etc.).
OK now imagine world W, where a complete enumeration of the truths of that world, such as they are, (or better yet the deductive closure of W, W*) contained nothing that implied or amounted to either the claim “God exists” or “God doesn't exist” but that W + “God exists” and W + “God doesn't exist” were each, non-equivalent consistent extensions of world W. Such a world would be “neutral” or “ambiguous” with respect to God's existence. God's existence would be unprovable in such a world (because it is independent), but so would the denial of God's existence. The facts of the world would be capable of being given multiple interpretations, including an interpretation in which God exists (or more likely several distinct such interpretations), and at least one interpretation in which God does not exist. God's existence would be underdetermined by the facts of the world. No worldly test in world W would disambiguate God's existence. In a sense, God “hides” from world W. Any intervention God makes in world W, requires a layer of plausible deniability, so that it is possible to interpret the facts of the event as something other than God's intervention, even if it also possible to interpret the event as God's intervention. W is, in a sense, a “fideist” world, a world where the facts are insufficient to falsify disparate faiths as to the interpretation of the facts.

I don't really want to assert that our world is a world like W. (In fact I think that truths and facts don't really work like that, so when you try to enumerate the truths of our world you get none, so the formalization just doesn't work). But I still think this is a sort of helpful analogy for imagining what a world where Fideism worked would be like. The facts always underdetermine the interpretation of the facts. A world that you can interpret with or without a God, doesn't really seem that alien to me.


OK – so obviously each of those could be a little paperlet or blog post on its own. And I haven't even tried to tackle say, Hegel, or Heraclitus, or Zhuangzi's understanding of the “maker of all,” or say Kant's understanding of the fourth antinomy of reason with respect to the existence of an absolutely necessary being, and also not. We could find more philosophical motivations to be pushed to complex middle positions between theism and atheism if we wanted. My goal here is really just to give a sketch of a bunch of them to show that many people, for many reasons, find the terrain between atheism and theism to be compelling.